Countless dude ranches across the country give guests the chance to don Stetsons and step back in time to the Old West. But at the Alisal's four-day all-inclusive Cowgirl Boot Camp, that break from modernity doesn't mean you have to forego the creature comforts of stellar cuisine and comfortable bedding; but here, unlike some other well-known "ranches," the emphasis is on adventure, not facial peels, and this break from vanity -- and menfolk -- is like a return to the sleepaway camps of our youth: Only this time, "bug juice" wears the labels of Petron, Don Julio and other fine tequilas, and most of us happily greet a 10 o'clock "lights out" plum tuckered from a full day's itinerary on horseback, despite the fact there are no curfews.
The challenges of life in the Old West are distilled to an introductory level of horsemanship and herding, their focus on accomplishment is tempered by a sense of fun and camaraderie, all for $2,250 and a chance to leave the boys behind and indulge in a Western utopia that includes fireside massages and the reserves of some 60 fertile vineyards in the nearby Santa Barbara wine region.
For more than 60 years, this working cattle ranch, owned by the Jackson family, has been hosting guests like John Travolta, Barbra Streisand and Michelle Pfeiffer (who preceded my visit by a week). They vacation here, where Mother Earth meets two championship, 18-hole golf courses, a tennis complex, fishing and boating on a private 100-acre lake, for the tranquility of unspoiled horizons that surround the Alisal Ranch.
My complimentary straw hat, which greeted me along with a gift basket of lotions and healthful snacks when I arrived at my converted cattleman's cottage, crowns my head.
Even with the costume, I'm no Calamity Jane, but nor are the other cowgirl wannabes: the Richmond Hill gang, four happy housewives from Orange County, who love horses; or the assortment of other women, who treat this weekend as an annual escape. Most are in their 40s and 50s, rediscovering the joys of hitting the road with just the girls, back to a time when careers, marriages and children, and the workaday demands that find many of us juggling all three, corralled the kind of freedom the open spaces of the West still represent. As if Thelma and Louise died for our salvation.
Between wine tastings with local vintners, grilling lessons with executive chef Pascal Gode -- a Gallic version of the corpulent Hoss Cartwright, a TV character from "Bonanza," another of my favorite childhood cowboy programs -- and endless miles of riding, I have challenged the idea that a city gal loses some of her moxie when taken out of her urban habitat. This is the kind of life I could get used to.
I'm certain that lessons in fly-fishing will find me a quicker study than our wrangler's riding class. After demonstrating the colorful array of lures we fasten to our lines before pitching them wide, our handsome fly instructor reaches back and gently throws his own rod and line toward the lake, assuring us that the bass and bluegill in the Alisal's waters are ripe for the catch.
I'm rather pleased with my aim but the rules are clear: Alisal Lake is a catch-and-release protected area.